The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 16, 2022 1:00 am

Prescription for King good for what ails nation

Angelo Mante

On Sept. 20, 1958, a 29-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in Blumstein's Department Store in Harlem, New York, signing copies of his recently published book, “Strive Toward Freedom.” Maneuvering around the several people standing in line, a well-dressed woman in cat's eye glasses approached King suddenly.

“Are you Martin Luther King?”

“Yes,” King replied.

Upon his confirmation, the woman, later identified as Izola Ware Curry, leapt forward and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into King's chest, mere millimeters from his heart.

Dr. Emil Naclerio, one of the surgeons who saved King's life, said that “had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. He was just a sneeze away from death.”

Thankfully, not only did King survive his first assassination attempt, he also took this experience as an opportunity for personal growth and recommitment, following the counsel of a wise minister and trusted mentor, Howard Thurman.

During his visit to the hospital, Thurman urged King to take an additional two weeks beyond what the doctors had prescribed “to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide.”

King took Thurman's advice, writing to him on Nov. 8, 1958, “I am happy to report that I am feeling very well now and making steady progress toward a complete recovery. I am following your advice on the question 'Where do I go from here?' ”

While the doctors saved King's life, it is quite possible that Thurman helped save his spirit. Thurman understood that pondering social questions such as “Where do we go from here?” is futile apart from committed, ongoing contemplation of one's own inward journey.

Who am I? What do I want? How do I propose to get it?

These questions of identity, purpose and method, outlined in Thurman's “Disciplines of the Spirit,” are inextricably related to how we engage with the world around us – and questions we must continually revisit, lest we lose our way. In King's case, Thurman was concerned he would become “swallowed up” by a movement that had taken on a life of its own – a valid concern for a young man carrying unfathomable levels of responsibility and expectation.

As a result of King's extended convalescence, he recommitted his life to the way of nonviolence and continued his leadership during the most active and productive years of the civil rights movement. It's impossible to quantify the impact of Thurman's visit on King, but it seems safe to say that his mentor's counsel was exactly what he needed.

It might just be what we need, too.

America is not well. While we suffer from a host of physical, mental, public health and social issues, what alarms me most is that we're becoming an increasingly bitter, angry, hostile and polarized nation. On some of the very issues for which King fought – racial justice, voting rights, economic equality – we appear as divided as ever. Even those on the same side of issues, particularly in social movement spaces, can be stunningly quick to sever relationships over power struggles, petty disagreements or disparate philosophies over methods.

For those who desire to make the world better, who seek to create a more equal and just future for all people, I extend the invitation to ponder these eternally significant questions that Thurman poses: Who are you? What do you want? How do you propose to get it?

Contemplate these questions and revisit them regularly. Because as Thurman (and eventually King) understood, if we lose our way and become confused about these questions, our social involvement, however benevolent its intent, will likely do more harm than good – both to ourselves and the collective.

As we celebrate King this week, we would do well to remember that King's tactics and methods were not what made him great. He was great because he knew who he was, what he was called to do and had the audacity to do it with unwavering conviction. May it be so with us.

And, to echo Thurman's words in the aftermath of King's death, “May we harness the energy of our bitterness and make it available to the unfinished work which Martin has left behind.”

The Rev. Angelo Mante is executive director of Fort Wayne-based Alive Community Outreach.

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